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Why Polish Literature Remains Undiscovered

Updated: Apr 2

I have argued elsewhere that Polish literature is one of the best in the world. (Which of course it is and I am the handsomest senior citizen out there).

Here I wish to discuss why this treasure remains invisible to this day.

There are three reasons why.


The first of these is the fifty years of communist rule.

a) To begin with, the communist regime operated a very effective apparatus of censorship, which suppressed the publication or distribution of many excellent works within the country. The story of Bocheński's Roman Trilogy is a case in point: his books had to be passed from hand to hand in secrecy and could never be discussed in the media. Such works could only be published in samizdat form, or--abroad.

b) Second, Polish and Russian (some would say "Soviet," pretending that the USSR was something other than a Russian Empire's false-flag operation) diplomatic services used every tool at their disposal to prevent the publication of Polish works they deemed politically incorrect in the West. The Polish services did this mainly for their own political interest and would not have minded promoting some innocuous Polish literature (stories of happy farmers on a state farm, for example), but the Russian services were interested in putting the kibosh on any Polish publication abroad: it remains an established article of faith among Russian elites till this day that all Poles are incorrigible Russian haters (Moscow was burnt twice, both times by a Polish army) and it has actually been stated by a number of Russian communist leaders from Lenin to Brezhnev that Poles are a nation of incorrigible reactionaries. Therefore the Russian policy was to oppose the publication of any and all Polish works in the West per se.

A certain version of this remains to this day, as a vast majority of Slavic departments in American and European universities are dominated by Russian scholars, giving the impression that the 260 million Slavs who are not ethnic Russians are really just a footnote to Russian literature.

c) Under communism, publishing was considered a strategic industry (as it was part of the propaganda industrial complex). This meant that any representative of any Polish publisher who found himself in contact with a foreign publisher would be subject to surveillance and, not infrequently, of attempts to acquire him (and his Western counterparties) as an asset. As a result, employees of Polish publishers avoided contact with Western publishers like the kiss of death. The only authors who succeeded in the West during this time (Miłosz, Kapuściński, Lem) did it through their own personal contacts and gumption.


The second reason grows out of the first. Let us dub it the "publisher inertia." Polish publishers spent 50 years cut off from normal commercial exchange with Western publishers. They have no contacts, no tradition, no custom of selling their books in the West. They don't know how. They don't think they can. They don't even try.

Western publishers, on the other hand, look back in history and say to themselves: I don't see any Polish bestsellers in my country, Polish literature must be boring.

The idea that publishers know the market or can lead it is patently false or else all of their books would be bestsellers, while the best statistics I can find show that at least 70% of all newly published books make no money. Publishers simply do not understand the market any better than anyone else does, are risk averse, prefer me-too products, and will do tried-and-true 99 times before they try anything new.

The old market efficiency syndrome is at work here. You will recall the famous story of two economists walking down the street. "Say," says one, "is that a ten-dollar bill lying over there on the pavement?" "No way," replies the other. "If it were, someone would have long since picked it up."

The translators of Kapuściński's The Emperor relate the following remark made to them by a flabbergasted American publisher to whom they pitched the book: "Wait wait, you want me to publish in America a book written by a Pole about the Emperor of Ethiopia?" (Rolls his eyes).

(The Emperor has an Amazon sales rank of 50,000 and on Amazon alone sells $1500 worth of Emperor every month--38 years after its first publication in English).

The result is a kind of institutional defeatism: publishers don't publish these books unless someone pays them to do it (usually some kind of a charitable government grant) and then do nothing to sell the books because--well--they do not believe in the product anyway. Just look at the Amazon listings of the Polish books published in America over the last 20 years. You will see that they are usually only published in one format and have no reader reviews: a clear sign nobody is doing anything to promote them. These books are institutional tombstones.


Number three also grows out of number 1: lack of translators.

If you don't translate books, you will have no translators. If you have no translators, you cannot translate books. And if you only have a few translators, you end up with the usual problems of interpersonal politics and anti-competitive practices which mean high fees, unreasonably long delivery times, and lots and lots of politics.

A translator I spoke to recently has told me he takes a year to translate a book! A year! There is maybe half a dozen of them and Poland publishes 35,000 titles a year--how is this going to work, ever? Another told me he would not handle a project because his translator colleagues don't like it, which, given the size of the group, is of course rational: a job comes and goes, but colleagues will be around for half a century. Since they bid on the same jobs and the same grants, you better play nice.

The illustration is taken from Livro do Armeiro-mor, Lisbon, 1509

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